Afkar.me recently announced the start-ups that will benefit from their scheme’s first intake and a three month incubation period. TheCurve-me and TheDressRoom.com were selected from a group of 10 shortlisted entrants following a two day boot camp in Dubai. Nadia Mankani managed to catch up with Samantha Kayruz Chami, the co-founder of thedressroom.com as well as Maya Itani, the co-founder and managing partner of The Curve Middle East at ArabNet in Dubai last week and discuss their ideas, dreams and their journey with Afkar.me.
NM: Can you tell us what your start-ups are about?
My name is Samantha Kayruz Chami, I’m the co-founder of thedressroom.com, the dress room is an e-commerce boutique and it caters for special occasion dresses. We’re a very social region, we have plenty of events, weddings and special occasions that we want outfits to and we offer a range at a very good price point and elegance online.
My name is Maya Itani, I am the co-founder and managing partner of The Curve Middle East which is found at thecurve-me.com and we’re an aggregator for classes and courses in the UAE because we felt that there’s a real lack of lifelong learning among the people in this region, especially when it comes to investing in yourself rather than just your energy into your company. So we work with businesses that offer classes such as photography, yoga, cooking, or even something as niche as how to stop smoking and reiki healing, to kind of connect businesses with people who are looking to learn new things.
NM: What stage was your company at when you approached Afkar.me?
SKC: We’d already launched when we approached Afkar.me. We launched our website thedressroom.com in January 2013 and our marketing launch was in April that year and we then launched our offline showroom in February and it was in February that we were shortlisted as one of the incubators for Afkar.me. So the idea was validated we launched, we’d been in the media and we’d done some media and marketing effort on our own at that point in time when we were approached by them and then they encouraged us to apply.
MI: For us the company had been live almost a year as well, so we launched in April 2013 and we were accepted in February 2014 the business was still at early stages at the moment but proof of concept is pretty much done at the moment we’re looking to expand and that’s why we approached Afkar.me because we felt that we’re needing a digital partner with the expertise to continue to grow in a way that is scale able and profitable.
NM: How did you hear about them?
MI: For me it was total fluke. I saw it on social media and I thought it might be a good idea to apply and that there was nothing to lose honestly. At that point you always wonder what it means to be incubated and to be part of an incubator and really having that digital partner of a larger company. Mentorship is something we were looking for so for us it was about guidance rather than funding or resources. It was about actually having experts in the industry help you assess your business and help take it forward so it sounded like the right thing for us.
SKC: For us it made sense to work with Afkar.me because they’re the STC digital partners; accessing Saudi, launching in Saudi is not a given feat. It’s probably easier to do it in the UAE where we’re based and where we’re more familiar. Saudi’s a market that’s very different to us no matter how much experience we think we may have in it, so having them as digital partners was crucial. We’re an online platform so digitising our concept requires digital expertise and that’s what they offer. Not just the e-commerce perspective of what we offer but also a broad spectrum of partnerships with them.
NM: What kind of facilities did you receive from Afkar.me?
SKC: What they stipulate is that you receive $20,000 as seed funding to go towards set milestones that you basically agree together so you audit your company and you decide what are the key priorities within the 3 months of incubation. In addition you are incubated within their offices so they give you office space and you have access to the team and their knowhow and a team of experts across the entire digital spectrum that you have access to ask questions to and get some advice from. And then the accelerated part of it comes in when there is a revenue sharing scheme and you partner up and approach the telcos and the Saudi Market and they help you sell your product to the market. Basically they walk you through, which as a start-up, is a great partnership to have helping you to introduce you to different markets to give you access to markets and channels and target audiences that are ready to listen to you.
MI: Not much more to add there but I think in addition to their internal team and resources that we’re lucky to be able to brainstorm with on a daily basis because we’re incubated in their offices. It’s part of the agreement that you’re there through the whole three month incubation in order to make the most of the program. It’s also good for a small company to have someone to bounce ideas off and to be part of a larger entity for a time. But also they give us access to external experts, people from the VC side, from large digital agencies, and people from the PR side. Wherever you highlight that you have a short coming you’d like to build on, they help to connect you with someone who can mentor you, who can give you a course who can actually guide you in a direction if they don’t have the internal resources. They have a lot of people that they are connected with who are able to meet with us and give their time to us so that’s really beneficial.
NM: How did these facilities help you to progress your business?
MI: We’ve just started the program and we’re two weeks running at the moment so we’ve just finished setting the milestones which as Samantha said is you identifying with the team what the objectives are that you want to have for this incubation period as well as for the longer duration for the three year partnership. At the moment we can only see what we’re establishing as goals- for example it could be relaunching the platform, overhauling the platform totally or changing business directions. Each of us has very different objectives that we’re planning to achieve together but at the moment it’s too early in the incubation to see actual tangible results.
SKC: We’ve only been in this program for 10 days or two weeks and a good part of it’s been spent at ArabNet so we haven’t really dug our teeth into the milestones at work. We’re still trying to get to grips with the way they work and them learning about our business and our challenges and focusing on what they’ll help us do. But I think what Afktar.me offers that no other accelerator does is that they have a funnel of products and new product development that they’re always churning out. They have under one roof the expertise from A to Z such as marketing expertise, Saudi expertise, activation, front and back end technology, SEO etc. At any point in time when you have a question related to your business or something stopping you from moving forward or you’ve highlighted something that’s an issue and you don’t have the know-how or the expertise, you can just pull somebody in from their team. And they’re always there. Not necessarily ready at the touch of a button but they’re there to help you out and the team’s been briefed that there’s going to be a couple of incubators and that they’ve got to make time for us and they’ve been very helpful. And that’s a very strong unique point about Afkar.me- the fact that they have the expertise to help us from any angle of the business.
MI: That’s a very good point because I was attending a discussion yesterday about incubators and one of the debates that was happening was whether a corporate-led incubator was actually just a PR gimmick or whether it was something that could actually benefit the community. And like Samantha said, being able to be in an office with 200 people all of whom have different expertise and being able to just jump over to someone’s office and have a chat, that’s invaluable. And it really helps with motivation and it helps to really bring the excitement that you’re part of something bigger. You have a whole team behind you who really want to see you succeed because for us in a revenue sharing model obviously the better we do the better they do, so there’s mutual benefit there.